One of my favorite episodes of the early 2000s TV drama “The West Wing” centers around fictional Senator Howard Stackhouse’s marathon filibuster to add funding for autism research to a six million dollar healthcare bill. After eight-plus hours of speaking (and standing), he’s relieved by a question from another Senator. The whole process is dry, but inspiring.
The filibuster is one of the biggest weapons in a politician’s arsenal. Senators are able to delay a vote by talking endlessly about the bill in question until 60 Senators – a supermajority – agree to end discussion and move to a vote. Rarely do Senate majorities constitute a supermajority, so filibusters often succeed in delaying, and sometimes killing, votes. After President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, House Democrats banded together to filibuster the nomination. In response, Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to deploy the “nuclear option” and lowered the threshold for advancing Supreme Court nominations from a supermajority to a majority, abolishing the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations.
I’m irritated with the hypocrisy of the decision after McConnell’s refusal to even consider Judge Eric Garland, nominated by President Obama during his eighth year in office to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. But the nuclear option isn’t unique to Senate Republicans; the Democrats abolished filibusters on presidential nominations to lower courts in 2013.
I believe that the nuclear option is a rather dramatic, but necessary, method of filibuster reform. In its current form, the filibuster is wildly undemocratic and grossly overused. According to a study by political scientist Suzanne Mettler, filibusters were only used 16 times between 1840 and 1900. From 2009 to 2010, it was invoked 130 times. This increase is reflective of the growing partisan divide and highlights Senators’ priority of achieving partisan victories over creating effective legislation in the interest of their constituencies. Recent Senates have passed fewer bills than any other Senate in the 20th century.
While the Senate was created to be a slow, deliberative body with equal representation from all 50 states, inequality in the United States has increased so dramatically since the Senate’s creation that the legislative body could now be considered irrelevant. The filibuster allows one Senator to hold the entire body hostage; Alaska could easily derail a bill that’s supported by New York, California and Minnesota.
Filibusters on nomination processes threaten to disable the entire governmental structure. Yes, I am horrified that Trump has somehow been sanctioned by a minority of the American public to appoint a judge to a revered and impartial court. But because Garland was never considered and the House Democrats filibustered Gorsuch’s nomination, Scalia’s seat sat empty for far too long and the Court remained evenly split. An evenly divided Supreme Court defaults to the decision of the lower court. Assuming that the court split on decisions, the United States would not have a fully functional Supreme Court until someone got through the Senate.
It’s always thrilling to watch elected officials work hard to create effective policy for good people. It’s also a little thrilling when they pull out their procedural weapons to rally against bad policy (I’m mostly referring to the time Mass. Senator Elizabeth Warren brought an armful of Dunkin’ Donuts to a Congressional sit-in). But, enabled by the filibuster, the Senate has become more interested in listening to themselves talk around productive work than doing their jobs.
Emma Whitford ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Middleton, Wisc. She majors in political science.